Collection of Auguries
Annie Q. Syed. McNally Jackson, $14 paper (172p) ISBN 978-1-938022-45-6
Syed presents a rich and engaging collection of short shorts that reveals hidden truths about the human condition and encourages readers to search for fuller understanding of themselves and their place in the universe. In some entries, the author uses dialogue between two characters to drive the narrative. Other stories are more traditional in their form, and address love, dreams, and memories. All are well crafted and rich in their sense of place; they use philosophic inquiry, scientific explanation, and ancient myth to examine the human experience. And while most of the stories run less than five pages, readers will find themselves pondering them long after finishing the collection. As the narrator of “Love Is Not a True Word” explains, “Some stories we understand better the more often we hear or read them. Other stories we can only understand the first time and thereafter we can never reach the same understanding.” The meaning of Syed’s stories will stick with readers like dreams throughout the day.
Cries in the Night
Kathy Clark. Nightwriter93, $9.99 paper (251p) ISBN 978-1-4928-7667-0
In the second installment in Clark’s Denver After Dark series, Julie Lawrence works as a victims advocate for the police department in Denver. She’s friendly with the police officers and firefighters who make up her social circle, but doesn’t allow herself to get close to any of them. So when firefighter Rusty Wilson starts pursuing Julie, she resists his efforts. But soon, strange things start happening to Julie—her house gets broken into, her cat is killed, a snake is left in her car—and she thinks she’s become a target. And when she finally lets down her guard with Rusty, some surprising truths about her past come to light. Clark’s (After Midnight) strong grasp of the intricacies of firefighting and police procedure is on display in this suspenseful novel. That, and a well-rendered setting, ground the story, parts of which are more believable than others. Fans of the series will certainly enjoy this latest effort from Clark and find Julie an engaging protagonist.
C. Edward Baldwin. Smashwords, $3.99 e-book (229p) ISBN 978-1-311-39858-1
Nothing shatters the illusion of reality in a thriller more quickly than a ludicrous and gratuitous detail. And in this improbable thriller, Baldwin strains credulity to the breaking point when he describes a character as having received advanced medical and legal degrees by the age of 11. In Duraleigh, N.C., a hyperpowerful criminal drug syndicate called Fathers Disciples is using Fathers House, a home for disadvantaged boys, to recruit members. Pitted against this group is Assistant District Attorney Ben Lovison, a young prosecutor with links to the house, whose wife is about to give birth to twins, and who is haunted by his past. Given how powerful the Fathers Disciples are—they have infiltrated “the DA’s office, the police department, and most of city hall”—the odds are certainly against Lovison, but the tone of the book will leave few readers surprised at how it all plays out.
Inside the Tall, Thick Book of Tales
A.C. Birdsong. Cape Buffalo Publishing, $12 paper (307p) ISBN 978-0-615-85105-1
Jacob is the last in a line of caretakers of magic. He is charged with training one apprentice in his life and passing on all his magical knowledge. But his apprentice, Palmer, is impatient and yearns to use magic before the time is right. When Jacob says he will no longer work with Palmer, the apprentice manages to trap Jacob—along with Lucy, a young girl who lives next door—inside a book of children’s fairy tales, promising to let him out only after Jacob gives him all of his magical knowledge. Now Lucy and Jacob must devise an escape plan before it’s too late. Although Birdsong’s premise is interesting and fun, and the book’s setting is imaginative, plot holes and inconsistences take away from the narrative. While some of the novel’s many characters—particularly Plamer—fall flat, others, like the Bookworm, are delightful and entertaining.
Stephen R. Stober. Stephen R. Stober Books, $2.99 e-book (294p) ISBN 978-0-9919567-1-5
The unnamed protagonist of this novel knows nothing of his own identity. He’s a presence who moves from host to host, helping people through times of extreme duress and hardship before moving on again. This time, he finds himself in Boston, where his host is Jeremy Roberts, a successful businessman whose family was destroyed by the disappearance of his daughter, Jessie. As Jeremy, the narrator utilizes his photographic memory to restart the investigation into Jessie’s disappearance, working to uncover a dark conspiracy before he must move on to his next host. Stober’s thriller is engaging and his premise—which will remind readers of TV’s Quantum Leap—is fascinating. Although some elements of the plot strain the bounds of credulity, tight prose and a winning concept make for an entertaining read.
Molly Waldo! A Young Man’s First Voyage to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Adapted from the Stories of Marblehead Fishermen of the 1800s
Priscilla L. Moulton and Bethe Lee Moulton. Glide Press, $19.95 hardcover (136p) ISBN 978-0-9836365-0-2
Drawing on historical events, the mother-daughter team of Priscilla L. and Bethe Lee Moulton vividly capture life in a 19th-century New England fishing community. Inspired by the paintings of J.O.J. Frost—and fleshed out with biographies, a map, other artwork, and a glossary—this coming-of-age tale follows fictional 16-year-old Jon Bowen on his first voyage aboard the fishing schooner Fides. As he battles the elements and learns the ropes, he encounters a colorful cast of characters who help him to survive along the way. The authors’ narrative is crisp and packed with details, providing readers with an authentic account of the perilous life of 19th-century fishermen. Frost’s art, reproduced in black-and-white and full-color plates, is evocative, whimsical, and dramatic. This accessible, entertaining, and educational book should appeal to readers young and old.
Jeff Gunhus. Seven Guns Press, $14.95 paper (438p) ISBN 978-0-615-82838-1
Jack Tremont moves his family from California to Maryland for a slower pace and quieter life. Things in Maryland seem idyllic until a dying drunk tells Jack that his daughter, Sarah, is in grave danger. Soon, Nate Huckley—a terrifying killer with dark powers—sets his sights on Sarah. When Sarah goes missing, Jack—with the help a mysterious Native American named Joseph Lonetree—must take matters into his own hands and uncover a supernatural conspiracy. Gunhus (Jack Templar Monster Hunter) has created a taut thriller that will keep readers up at night. While the plot’s supernatural elements can seem a bit heavy handed, the book’s real strengths are the genuine creepiness of Huckley and the way the author steadily ramps up the tension. Readers looking for a good scare will delight in this novel, even if they suddenly feel compelled to sleep with the lights on.
Dean Blake. Dean Blake, $12.95 paper (202p) ISBN 978-0-9923690-0-2
This collection of brash shorts from blogger Blake covers everything from broken relationships to vanity and horror. And while some stories are unfocused and discursive, the collection proves ironically entertaining and appealingly tasteless. In “The Committee,” a group of young adults form a pact to “look perfect from any angle,” while in “The Worst Thing Jude Has Ever Done,” a salacious man plays a prank on a woman—convincing her that she might have contracted HIV. Other stories examine violence, love, and the fringes of society, and feature a host of lewd, vulgar, and self-centered characters, while a series of eight shorts about a girl named Eva form the backbone of the collection. These gritty stories will appeal to readers with an appetite for blunt entertainment.
Paul Cumbo. One Lane Bridge Publications, $11.95 paper (164p) ISBN 978-0-9882086-2-9
Cumbo (Boarding Pass) offers up 10 shorts with broad appeal in this entertaining collection. In the opening story, a group of boys in the small town of Lawson, N.Y., are accessories to a bike theft and learn an important lesson when they confront the reclusive man from whom the bicycle was stolen. In “Thunderbird,” a young boy learns life lessons when his troubled 18-year-old cousin comes to visit. While Cumbo’s stories are tender and well crafted, some of them lack depth. “Park Avenue” describes a young man’s new job at a stock brokerage firm in New York. The story’s characters reflect the elitism and materialism of the world of high finance, but they fail to reflect the moral ambiguity many readers will expect from the denizens of Wall Street. While these emotive tales often lack the kind of gut-wrenching or heartwarming denouements that would make them stick with readers, they ably capture everyday life and the unexpected lessons that come from self-discovery.
★ The Donation of Constantine
Simon LeVay. CreateSpace/Lambourn Books, $16.95 paper (425p) ISBN 978-1-4701-3215-6
LeVay (When Science Goes Wrong) provides an intriguing look at eighth-century Rome and a critique of the complexities of historical truth in this fictional account of the creation of one of the seminal documents in European history: the Donation of Constantine. With Aistulf, King of the Lombards, poised to overrun Rome, Paul, the brother of Pope Stephen II, and Leoba, a nun, missionary, and scribe, concoct a desperate scheme to forge a letter from Emperor Constantine I giving the Pope temporal power over the West. LeVay presents an intriguing view of the clash between social necessity and individual faith that successfully evokes a world with concerns familiar to modern-day readers. Additionally, the author offers a coherent, fact-based picture of the ambiguities of historical truth and the shakiness of the foundations of society. The inclusion of historical background information weighs down the narrative at times, but the complexity of the novel’s issues provides room for reflection on the perversion of fact and dogma in the face of necessity.
The Theory of Opposites
Allison Winn Scotch. Camellia Press, $13.99 paper (312p) ISBN 978-0-9894990-0-2
“Everything happens for a reason.” Or so Willa Chandler-Golden, the daughter of a popular self-help guru and bestselling author, has been led to believe. But this idea of a universe of “no coincidences” is challenged when Willa’s comfortable life suddenly comes crashing down: her husband proposes a no-contact separation for the summer, she is fired from her job, and her troubled 12-year-old nephew moves in. But when Willa agrees to work with a writer friend on a project related to the popular reality show Dare You!, she must own her choices, while challenging her father’s mantra and opening herself up to new challenges and unexpected surprises. Scotch (The Song Remains the Same) spins an entertaining tale of fate versus free will, and of one woman’s decision to reclaim her life by reconsidering the paths not taken and facing fears. Rife with lighthearted humor and memorable characters, readers will find themselves rooting for Willa during her emotional journey to overcome her insecurities and create her own path for happiness.
The Wolf at the End of the World
Douglas Smith. Lucky Bat Books, $18.99 paper (360p) ISBN 978-0-9918007-3-5
Killings in a remote Canadian town draw the attention of two rival groups: the Heroka, Native American shape-shifters, and the Tainchel, a secret government agency tasked with hunting down the Heroka. Among those investigating the killings are Gwyn Blaidd, a solitary Heroka war hero of the wolf totem, and Kate Morgan, a member of the Tainchel traveling with her visually impaired son, Zach. As the killings continue, dark supernatural forces align in an attempt to rule the world. Smith (Chimerascope) has a thorough grounding in Native American lore, and this creates an immersive and enjoyable reading experience. Readers will delight in learning more about Native American mythology, which is skillfully woven throughout the story. Smith’s novel is both well paced and deftly plotted—leaving readers curious about what comes next for the Heroka in the modern world.
99 Jobs: Blood, Sweat, and Houses
Joe Cottonwood. Clear Heart Books, $17.99 paper (302p) ISBN 978-0-615-90944-8
In this gritty and entertaining memoir, Cottonwood presents readers with a collection of anecdotes—some more serious than others—about his experiences working odd jobs as a contractor, carpenter, plumber, and electrician. As the titles suggests, the work wasn’t always easy, but it brought Cottonwood into contact with a variety of colorful characters and situations—e.g., when the author takes a job rewiring an illegal rental for a “crazy man”; when he gets a job changing light bulbs on a college campus; and when he salvages a clawfoot bathtub from a wrecking yard in San Jose, Calif., only to let it sit unused on his unfinished bathroom floor for six years. Cottonwood’s prose is lively and his stories often charming. Readers will find it easy to relate to the author and his experiences, which are likely to appeal to anyone who has worked a less-than-perfect job.
Emily Dickinson, “Virgin Recluse” and Rebel: 36 Poems, Their Backstories, Her Life
Lea Bertani Vozar Newman. Shires Press, $22 paper (212p) ISBN 978-0-9746389-8-0
Emily Dickinson is one of those most celebrated figures in American poetry. Here, college professor Newman compiles 36 poems that she finds representative of Dickinson’s canon and reflective of her life. The author pairs these poems with scholarship and biographical information to give readers a fuller picture of the poet’s life and work. Topics range from Dickinson’s relationship with God to her obsession with mortality and gradual isolation—all of them framed by her evocative words. Those who haven’t read Dickinson’s poetry will likely find this an interesting entry point, but readers already familiar with her work will absolutely delight in this volume. Newman is an informed guide and offers readers a chance to understand the woman behind the poems.
★ Parents in Highschooland: Helping Students Succeed in the Critical Years
Karyn Rashoff. BarkingDogBooks, $12.95 paper (162p) ISBN 978-0-9897606-1-4
Rashoff uses her considerable experience (33 years as a high school counselor) to provide practical advice in this no-nonsense guidebook for parents and students. Rashoff’s tone is compassionate but firm, and she uses snappy, memorable comparisons to get her points across, while employing advice from families who have successfully navigated high school. Each chapter concludes with an enthusiastic directive or question, and readers will find help on a broad variety of topics, such as how to talk to your child and how to improve study habits. Rashoff also has suggestions for success from teachers of various subjects. The author is also attentive to issues surrounding ethnic diversity in schools, and includes a chapter on “Wisdom from Other Cultures.” Rashoff has compiled such a helpful book—well researched, on topic, with plenty of good examples—that it’s hard to give her anything but an A.
Push Dick’s Button: A Conversation on Skating from a Good Part of the Last Century—and a Little Tomfoolery
Dick Button. CreateSpace, $15.99 paper (254p) ISBN 978-1-4942-2347-2
Dick Button is one of the most famous names in figure skating—as both an Olympic champion and an expert commentator. Here, he invites readers to “join my dogs and me on my well-worn couch” and discuss his sport. Button ably breaks down some of the fundamentals of figure skating for those new to the sport, highlights key moments in figure skating history (his own included), and explains recent changes in scoring that have alienated some fans. Figure skating enthusiasts will find this intimate, insider’s account priceless. Button is gregarious and self-effacing, and he’s clearly passionate about his sport. However, the author’s informal tone doesn’t always make for easy reading. Button meanders from topic to topic without a strong sense of organization, and this can leave readers confused, even as they enjoy his laidback affability.
★ Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America
Mark Schimmoeller. Synandra Press/Alice Peck Editorial, $14.95 paper (311p) ISBN 978-0-9860587-0-7
Sumptuous language and a disarming gentleness propel this profoundly simple, funny, and sincere memoir. Growing up as the child of idealistic homesteaders in Kentucky imbued Schimmoeller with a deep appreciation for nature and off-the-grid living, while leaving him feeling disconnected from the modern world. After graduating from college and finishing an unsatisfying internship at the Nation, Schimmoeller embarked on a solo journey across America on a unicycle. The author’s story of finding a way to live in the world on his own terms is told simultaneously with that of his attempts to save old-growth forest adjacent to his homestead in Kentucky. “It doesn’t make a difference one way or the other if I take a break,” he tells a stranger who questions the intensely slow pace of his mode of transport—an explanation that speaks to the author’s quest to find respite in a troubled world.
Twelve Mindful Months: Cultivating a Balanced & Fit Body, Mind & Spirit
Carol Tibbetts. True Nature Press, $26.95 hardcover (160p) ISBN 978-0-615-68758-2
Fitness instructor Tibbetts offers up a winning self-help book that will likely find an eager audience among those hoping to fulfill New Year’s resolutions that include losing weight, getting active, and having a better outlook on life. The author posits that mindful, healthy living can lead to impressive results, such as increased contentment, relaxation, and happiness. With a chapter devoted to each month of the year, the book features topics ranging from journaling and serenity to keeping a food diary. Each chapter also includes encouraging tips on fitness, healthy eating, and mindfulness. Although Tibbetts doesn’t present anything particularly new here, readers already committed to a healthy lifestyle—or those who need a friendly reminder—will welcome this useful companion.
Children’s Picture Books
Loukoumi and the Schoolyard Bully
Nick Katsoris. NK Publications/Dream Day Press (www.Loukoumi.com), $15.95 (32p) ISBN 978-0-9841610-3-4
Katsoris addresses bullying in his sixth book starring Loukoumi, an anthropomorphic lamb who lives up to her sweet name (it’s the Greek word for Turkish delight candy). After Loukoumi tells her friends that she’s going to have a baby brother, a pushy alligator named Igor butts in and makes fun of her name. Following a leaden pep talk from one of her friends (“You shouldn’t be a bully because it really isn’t cool. You should be accepting of others. That’s the golden rule”), Loukoumi counters Igor’s meanness with kindness. In a speedy about-face, Igor apologies to Loukoumi, and her response crystallizes the story’s obvious message: “It really is cooler to be nice.” The author reinforces the theme of Loukoumi’s sweetness in the story’s conclusion, when her father says they will name her newly arrived sibling Lou, in honor of Loukoumi. The brassy digitally created cartoons have a TV cartoon vibe, but tend to be static and flat. A portion of the book’s proceeds will benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. An audio download featuring celebrity narrators is available on the series’ Web site. Ages 4–8.
Dead Chest Island
J.J. Parsons. CreateSpace (www.edisonjones.com), $8.99 paper (158p) ISBN 978-1-4943-2913-6
In this offbeat, fast-paced adventure set in the Caribbean in 1956, three children explore a mysterious island and encounter dangers aplenty. Edison Jones, his older sister Charlotte, and new friend Jonathan follow clues left on an old piece of scrimshaw, which lead them to a long-lost tunnel on the ominously named Dead Chest Island. After a tsunami leaves them stranded on the island, they must find a way to get home again. As their series of bizarre encounters expands to include a secret submarine, Russian spies, and a reclusive beatnik, they realize they’re in for the time of their lives. Parsons’s middle-grade novel keeps characterization and explanations simple, while drawing on local myth and folklore, as well as historical events, to produce an entertaining if occasionally erratic narrative. Part of the story is recounted in a local dialect, which can disrupt the flow of events even as it adds color and flavor. However, the book ends with numerous questions left unanswered, setting up future installments of a planned series; a lighthearted afterword separates fact from fiction and offers some historical context. Ages 8–12.
Jim Morgan and the Pirates of the Black Skull
James Matlack Raney. Dreamfarer Press (www.jimmorganbooks.com), $11.99 paper (328p) ISBN 978-0-9858359-3-4
The adventures of Jim Morgan continue in this second entry in the series, following Jim Morgan and the King of Thieves. A year after fighting the King of Thieves, Jim is ready to reclaim his home, now that his wicked Aunt Margarita is about to be arrested. But his homecoming leads to betrayal and tragedy as another old enemy surfaces. Now Jim, along with his best friends, Lacey and the Ratt Brothers, must take to the high seas in pursuit of vengeance and treasure. A hidden island holds the key to finding the legendary Treasure of the Ocean, but Jim and his allies will have to outwit monsters, overcome their darker impulses, and fight for their lives to claim the prize. Swash-buckling pirate action meets magical mayhem as the intrepid teens encounter one problem after another. The overall story is a little convoluted with its numerous twists and turns, and fans may be tempted to face-palm as Jim makes some spectacularly bad decisions along the way, but Raney delivers a fast-paced, entertaining tale. Ages 8–12.
Blood Orange Soda
James Michael Larranaga. James Michael Larranaga, $3.99 e-book (350p) ISBN 978-0-9913256-0-3
Fifteen-year-old Darius is a goth who will someday become a vampire if he stops taking “reds,” pills that help suppress the blood cravings and allow vampires to lead normal lives. However, when constant bullying by Asian gang members at school gets to him, Darius decides to forgo the reds and transition early. His uncle hooks him up with blood orange soda, which accelerates the transformation while amplifying his physical changes and prowess. As Darius romances the sultry Shelby, likewise a vampire-in-transition, he must resist the temptation to take things to the next level. He’s also coping with his mother’s declining health, the result of V2, the vampire version of HIV. The allegories fly fast and furious in this overwrought story—one that never entirely settles on an identity. Is this a story about bullying or drug abuse? Are readers meant to empathize with the teen who juices up on prohibited substances to settle his problems through fighting? With awkward slang (“furreal,” “fugger”) and a confused plot, this tale doesn’t take full advantage of its unique spin on vampires in high school. Ages 12–up.